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Age Proofing Strategies
When we are young, energetic and able, we rarely, if ever think of issues like aging. For many, the thought of being 65 and up seems too far away to fathom. So why worry now? Because every little bit adds up. Nurturing a healthy body and mind takes time, which means there are no short-cuts. It is cultivated by daily habits that have profound long-term impacts on our health and well-being in later years. Keeping our minds healthy and active is just as important as keeping our bodies physically tuned.
uResearch has found that our mental abilities begin to decline starting as early as 27 years of age, with 22 being our peak time. According to studies, the process impacts our brain speed, reasoning and visual puzzle-solving abilities. Though we cannot stop the progression of time and the way our bodies naturally age, we can however, be proactive by taking care of three primary areas of our health to maintain and potentially improve brain and cognitive function: physical health and exercise, nutrition, and engagement in cognitive and social activities (Alzheimer’s Association, 2015).
Physical Health and Exercise
Recent research from the University of British Columbia has discovered regular physical activity changes the brain to improve memory and thinking skills. Routine aerobic exercise and weight training increases heart rate and sweat, while promoting a boost in the area of the brain involved in verbal memory and learning. Among its other benefits, exercise also stimulates the release of chemicals called “growth factors” that effect the health of the brain cells, the growth of new blood vessels within the brain (meaning more oxygen delivery), and the abundance and survival of new brain cells. Indirectly, exercise helps improve our mood and sleep patterns, while reducing stress and anxiety; all which impact cognitive fuctions.
With the warmer weather now, it is easier to head outdoors to get our daily dose of 30 minutes (Health Canada, 2015). Small things do add up: take 10 minutes to walk to the bus stop, 10 minutes strolling on your break and 10 minutes walking to your car from the grocery store. It’s as easy as that! Health Canada often recommends moderate (e.g. brisk walking, jogging, riding a bike) to vigorous physical activity (e.g. running, soccer).
Heart-healthy diets like the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet are great for promoting cognitive health. These diets are essentially low in fat and high in fiber containing primarily plant-based foods such as, vegetables and fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, healthy oils and fats and a controlled sodium level – all helping to reduce dementia risk. Studies have found that those who were on a Mediterranean diet were also 20% less likely to develop thinking and memory problems compared to those not on a Mediterranean diet plan. When possible, choose seasonal, locally-grown and organic produce for a cleaner and more wholesome nutritional approach. Choose more fresh versus processed foods to minimize the amount of sodium, sugars, fats and chemical additives in your diet. Try to eat more foods with omega-3s, antioxidants and zinc to maintain and promote good brain health.
Choosing a variety of foods containing omega-3s (e.g. flax seeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds, mackerel, salmon, tuna, sardines, or food products with omega-3s) may help combat memory loss that comes naturally with aging. Research has also touted omega-3s for their heart health, blood pressure, cancer and rheumatoid arthritis protective benefits as well (Harvard School of Public Health, 2015). As a word of caution, children and pregnant women should avoid eating fish containing high levels of mercury (e.g. shark, swordfish, king mackerel or tilefish) and opt for safer alternatives like nuts, seeds, oils or other fortified foods high in omega-3s.
Foods high in antioxidants (e.g. prunes, walnuts, pecans, dark-colored grapes, leeks, kale, blueberries, strawberries, sweet potatoes, squash, green tea, acai berries, and tomatoes) protect against free radical damage, which tends to occur daily and with the onset of aging. Antioxidants have also been found in studies to improve or delay short-term memory loss.
This essential mineral has been found in some studies to improve memory and cognition, especially in the area of memory formation and cognitive stability. Proper intake of zinc helps in maintaining healthy communication channels between neurons, preventing cognitive decline. Normally, we can get enough zinc from food sources alone. Foods relatively high in zinc include oysters, beef, crab, fortified breakfast cereals and grains, beans, yogurt, chick peas and cashews.
Cognitive and Social Activities
Being mentally stimulated by learning new activities, skills or taking on hobbies may provide short and long-term benefits for your brain. Just like building muscles in the body, which need constant strength and resistance training, your brain requires constant stimulation in order to stay active and sharp. Choosing activities that challenge you to think like playing strategy games, engaging in high-level reading, taking a class to learn something new or challenging, figuring out real or simulated problems (e.g. board games, cross-words, word problems, math problems) are great ways to maintain and, or improve your brain function. Choose activities that you truly enjoy and try to do them with family members, friends and people you know in the community.
Friendships can also boost happiness and relieve stress and tension, which have been found in studies to provide protective benefits for the brain. Stress over time can rewire our brains to become more anxious and depressed, while speeding up the aging process. In severe cases, stress overload may even impair cognitive function, increase memory problems, and result in poor concentration and judgment. Research has found that being socially active may support brain health and potentially delay the onset of dementia. Ways in which you can stay socially active are endless, but some ideas include: volunteering within your local church or community, joining a club, meeting up with friends or co-workers over coffee or participating in a charity event.
Rosanna Lee, PHEc., MHSc., BASc. is a nutrition and health expert, a professional home economist and an avid foodie with diverse experiences in healthcare, community nutrition, industry, education, public health and research.
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